A Fighter’s Song
“I Won’t Back Down” says it all in its title; it’s a fighter’s message; he’s standing his ground and he won’t back down. The lyrics — shown below in “Sources” — suggest a struggle against the odds, whatever they might be; and a determined stand against the powers that be, whoever they are. And Petty’s defiant tone in the performance provides just the right touch of attitude.
“I Won’t Back Down”
The song should resonate with anyone who has been wronged, as well as those who might be out to prove a point. It has a kind of universal and personal appeal. Plus, it’s good rock ‘n roll. It’s also a perfect song for a political campaign. And not surprisingly, more than a few politicians — Republicans, Democrats, and Independents — have all used it, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The Politics of Song
Politicians, especially in recent years, have begun scouring the pop, country, rap and hip hop music charts for tunes that strike a chord with their would-be supporters. They “borrow” these tunes and use them as theme music during their campaigns, playing them before speeches and at rally locations on the campaign trail. Sometimes, however, they don’t bother asking the artist’s permission to use the songs, or acquire all the requisite legal blessings. Such “oversight” can sometimes lead to embarrassing situations — for both candidate and artist.
Happily, for most of those using Tom Petty’s song in various campaigns over the last decade or so, there have only been only one or two of those awkward situations. Notably in this category, however, was the year 2000 presidential campaign of then Texas Governor W. Bush. Bush had used “I Won’t Back Down” at campaign events during the 2000 race, becoming practically “a fixture” at those events, according to one report. Tom Petty wasn’t happy about that. In early 2000, Tom Petty’s publisher sent George Bush a “cease and desist” letter to stop his campaign from using the song. So, he had his publisher send Bush a “cease and desist” letter. That meant Bush was compelled to stop using the song at his campaign events. Petty did not want the use of his song to be construed as an endorsement of candidate Bush.Petty’s publisher, Randall Wixen of Wixen Music Publishing Inc., wrote to Bush in early February 2000 telling him to “immediately cease and desist all uses of the song in connection with your campaign.” Wixen said in his letter to Bush that the use of the song “creates, either intentionally or unintentionally, the impression that you and your campaign have been endorsed by Tom Petty, which is not true.”
About a week later, Michael Toner, a lawyer for Bush’s campaign, wrote back to Wixen, saying: “We do not agree that the mere playing or use of a particular song at a campaign event connotes any impression, either intentionally or unintentionally, of endorsement.”
Nevertheless, Toner confirmed that the Bush campaign would not use the song at any future campaign events. “So we backed down,” said Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett, jokingly, to reporter Jake Tapper, then covering the issue for Salon.com.
Dems Like TuneOn the Democratic side of the aisle, a number of candidates — “fighters” all — had used Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” in their political campaigns. Virginia Democrat Jim Webb, a Vietnam Vet and former Secretary of the Navy who mounted a pugnacious, reform-minded run to win a U.S. Senate seat in 2006, used the Petty song in his campaign. On November 3rd, 2006, right before the election, Webb’s campaign staged a lively outdoor rally with prominent Democrats at Virginia Union University in Richmond. At that rally, Webb took to the stage to the beat of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” Webb won the race over Republican incumbent George Allen.
Another U.S. Senator in 2006, Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey, during his re-election bid, made “I Wont’ Back Down” his campaign’s theme song. It could be heard playing on sound systems from schools to senior centers all across the state. It was played wherever Menendez appeared, usually as he entered the room or took the stage. In some cases, the song was played live by a local band rather than the pre-recorded Tom Petty version.In West Deptford, NJ that fall, a local group of senior musicians called The Entertainers was used — four guys that had been playing local gigs for seven years. When the Menendez campaign told the band the Petty song was the song they would be using, the band leader had never heard of it. He then ran out and bought the CD, found the lyrics online, and had The Entertainers rehearse it briefly before Menendez’s appearance. Later that same day, as Menendez was joined by former President Bill Clinton at Essex County College in Newark, the Tom Petty version was back on the sound system. Menendez was 52 at the time of his re-election bid. He was being challenged by Republican Thomas Keane, Jr., a state senator and son of former governor and 9-11 Commission member Thomas Keane. Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants, had previously served as a school board member, mayor and state legislator before being elected to Congress in 1992. In January 2006, he was appointed by New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine to fill the Senate seat vacated by Corzine to serve as Governor. Menendez then won the seat in the general election that fall, becoming New Jersey’s first elected Hispanic senator. In 2006, he prevailed over Keane and was re-elected to a second term. Tom Petty’s tune, no doubt, played at his victory party.
Some “Backing Down”
Sometimes, however, the political candidates using a particular song come to bad end — certainly, no fault of the song’s artist. In two cases where the Petty song was used prominently in campaigns there came a bit of irony, as the candidates in these instances — both fighters in the populist mold — would unfortunately, “back down.”
One of these fighters was the promising New York Democrat and progressive, Eliot Spitzer, who had used “I Won’t Back Down” in launching his gubernatorial bid and throughout his campaign. The song had played prominently in Buffalo as Spitzer launched his bid, and it was frequently heard on the campaign trail as well.
“I Won’t Back Down” has also been heard in other prominent venues, some political. After Al Gore conceded the 2000 presidential election to George Bush, Tom Petty and other musicians attended a gathering of supporters at Gore’s Vice Presidential home in Washington. Petty performed the song for Gore and his supporters at the gathering.
Petty also played the song as part of the September 21, 2001 benefit telethon for the victims of the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Nearly 60 million people in the U.S. watched that televised special, which included celebrities such as Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Cruise. The song became a bit of a patriotic anthem after the 9-11 attacks. “I Won’t Back Down” was also one of four songs Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers performed during the 2008 Super Bowl halftime show.
Spitzer, as New York Attorney General, had come on like gangbusters, taking on the powerful at every turn, even on Wall Street. And if ever there was a guy who wasn’t going to “back down,” it was Spitzer through and through, with his sights set on Washington and bigger things ahead. But alas, it was Spitzer’s personal peccadilloes and call-girl revelations that brought the later-elected New York Governor down.
A somewhat similar case was that of the formerly, much-admired Democratic Presidential candidate John Edwards, who also cultivated the image of a fighter. Edwards speeches were filled with references to fighting corporations and American revolutionaries, often urging his listeners to rise up against special interests. Through 2007 and 2008, Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” could be heard in a repertoire of Edwards campaign songs that fit his themes and underlined his message. In gearing up for the New Hampshire primary in August 2007, for example, Edwards spoke in the town of Hookset. After the event, the campaign played “I Won’t Back Down” as Edwards shook hands of supporters on the way to boarding his “Fighting for One America” campaign bus. However, many months later, after the primaries had ended, Edwards’ revelations about a campaign relationship outside of his marriage helped take him out of the national political arena.
Political candidates come and go, of course, but the music lives on to play in many other battles. Doubtless, Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” will be heard in other campaigns to come. And that’s not a bad thing, as we need all the fighters we can get — or at the very least, those who want to try. So let the music play — especially that which helps bring more folks into the political process.
See also at this website, for example, “I’m A Dole Man” (music & politics), “Four Dead in O-hi-o” (protest music), and “Only a Pawn in Their Game“(civil rights related). For other story choices on politics and culture please see that category page. Thanks for visiting — and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle.
Date Posted: 7 March 2009
Last Update: 18 June 2015
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Jack Doyle, “I Won’t Back Down, 1989-2008,”
PopHistoryDig.com, March 7, 2009.
Sources, Links & Additional InformationFrank Bruni, “The 2000 Campaign: Campaign Notebook; A Wistful Bush Reflects On Hearth and Home,” New York Times, Friday, January 28, 2000.
Randall D. Wixen, Wixen Music Publishing, Inc., Calabasas, CA, Letter to Governor George W. Bush, Austin, TX, Re: Tom Petty/”I Won’t Back Down”, February 4, 2000.
Michael E. Toner, General Counsel, George W. Bush for President, Austin, TX, Letter to Randall D. Wixen, Wixen Music Publishing, Inc., Calabasas, CA, Re: Tom Petty/”I Won’t Back Down”, February 11, 2000.
Jake Tapper, “Don’t Do Me Like That: Tom Petty Tells George W. Bush to ‘Back Down’ From Using one of Petty’s Songs at his Events,” Salon.com, September 16, 2000.
Patrick Healy, “Democracy in Action,” New York Times, May 30, 2006.
Andrea Bernstein, “Spitzer Bus Tour Is Unofficial Campaign Kick-Off,” WNYC.org, Radio & print report, June 3, 2006.
David W. Chen, with reporting by Jonathan Miller & Nate Schweber, “As Expected, New Jersey Primaries Create Senate Race Between Kean and Menendez,” New York Times, June 7, 2006.
Cynthia Burton, “Menendez: He Has Risen Despite Defying Alliances,”Philadelphia Inquirer October 15, 2006.
“I Won’t Back Down”
Well I won’t back down,
Gonna stand my ground,
Well I know what’s right,
Hey baby there ain’t no easy way out
Todd Jackson and Michael Sluss, “Senate Hopefuls Still Pounding the Pavement; George Allen Gets an Endorsement and James Webb Trots out Some Democrat Heavyweights,” Roanoke.com, of The Roanoke Times, November 3, 2006.
David W. Chen, “A Fight Song Comes Alive,” New York Times, November 5, 2006.
Peter Nicholas, Edwards Levels Attack on Clinton-era White House,” Los Angeles Times, August 24, 2007, p. A-12.
Adam Nagourney, “Do You Know the Words to the Edwards Fight Song?,” The Caucus Blog, New York Times, December 19, 2007.
Adam Nagourney, “On the Trail: The Edwards Playlist,”New York Times, December 20, 2007.
Sarah Wheaton, “Accompaniments; Theme Songs and Others,” New York Times, February 16, 2008
Imprint ipod Gail Collins, “Hillary’s Smackdown,” New York Times, April 24, 2008.
Kleinheider, “That Ain’t Any Kind Of Concession Speech I Ever Heard Of,” NashvillePost.com, June 3, 2008.
“I Won’t Back Down,” SongFacts.com.
“I Won’t Back Down,”Wikipedia.org.
U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, United States Senate.
U.S. Senator Jim Webb, United States Senate.
“Eliot Spitzer,” Times Topics, New York Times.
“John Edwards,” Times Topics, New York Times.